RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Hazleton, Pennsylvania is a small, working-class city in the northeast part of the state. It was a quiet place - far from the national spotlight. That changed several years ago when Hazleton became a flash point in the national debate over immigration. Lou Barletta was the mayor back then.
REPRESENTATIVE LOU BARLETTA: I'll never forget this, back in 2001, I was called to an apartment. Nine men were sleeping on the floor. This apartment wasn't fit for animals, yet alone human to be exploited the way these nine men were. And as it turned out, the nine men were in the country illegally. You know, what I thought was so strange was why would nine people be in the country illegally be in Hazleton? We're 2,000 miles away from the nearest southern border.
MARTIN: But this is not just a border town issue, and Hazleton was changing. More Hispanics were moving there. Many of them started businesses that helped revive the local economy. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of the city is now of Hispanic origin. But Barletta says some of those people were in the country illegally - and he claims that their presence in Hazelton strained the city's budget and contributed to the rising crime rate.
BARLETTA: Enough was enough. If the federal government wasn't going to do anything to help me, I took an oath of office to do something.
MARTIN: So, in the summer of 2006, Barletta and the Hazleton City Council passed something called the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. The law targeted those who knowingly employed or rented to people in the country illegally. At the same time, Hazleton made English the city's official language. Multiple civil rights groups said the law was discriminatory and sued the city, and courts have prevented most elements of the act from ever going into effect. But the ordinance still brought national attention, and divided Hazleton.
MAXINE BALLIET: You have people that are overcrowding in homes and in apartments to the point where garbage is loading up and you're getting roaches everywhere. We've had that problem here. I am for the mayor 100 percent on this.
AGAPITO LOPEZ: There has always been hate here, but it has been subdued. Now, people are people looking at us strangely. They are telling us to go home. We are afraid we may have some confrontations because of this.
MARTIN: Voices from Hazleton, Pennsylvania in 2006. Lou Barletta was elected to Congress in 2010, and it was his experience as mayor of Hazleton that shaped his views on the national immigration debate. I asked Barletta if he regretted passing a law that never went into effect but still caused so much controversy.
BARLETTA: You know, it brought this integration issue, the failure of the federal government, to the forefront. There was nobody in America at the time that had the courage to do anything like that. And when I proposed the ordinance and we passed the ordinance, I couldn't find a politician that wanted to come near me. They would bypass Hazleton as if it wasn't even on the map.
MARTIN: But why was that? Why...
BARLETTA: Because they were afraid. People were afraid of the political consequences of taking such a stance. So, I was the first one in the country to step forward. Do I regret it? No, I don't. Would I recommend it? No, I wouldn't. My life had changed because of it. I've had...
MARTIN: How so?
BARLETTA: ...I've had threats, I've been called name, I've been misrepresented, misquoted. I've been called a racist, a bigot. You know, it's strange, especially since my grandson is Dominican. And I don't not regret being someone who risked my own political career and my own life. I have to stand up for what I believed is correct.
MARTIN: Now, you're a congressman. You're obviously thinking about the issue of immigration with a different, broader perspective. What is kind of a common sense, practical way to fix the country's illegal immigration problem?
BARLETTA: Well, first of all, we should make E-Verify mandatory across the country. E-Verify is a federal database that would make sure that you're hiring lawful workers. That would discourage illegal immigration. But really it's not that hard. We need to secure our borders, period. We shouldn't be talking about a pathway to citizenship because when I hear that, I hear more politics than thinking about good policy. Any...
MARTIN: Although, that's what a lot of your Republican colleagues are suggesting is the key, is some kind of pathway to citizenship.
BARLETTA: Well, again, I don't think that's good policy because you're making a bad situation worse. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to 1.5 million illegal aliens, he promised the American people that we would secure our borders and this would never happen again. And what has happened today? Twenty-seven years later, there's over 11 million people in the country illegally. And, once again, Washington is promising amnesty.
MARTIN: So, are you suggesting that the only way to solve this problem is to just deport the more than 11 million people already in the country illegally and then start over?
BARLETTA: Well, you said that. I didn't say that. I...
MARTIN: Well, is that something you would support?
BARLETTA: See, this is what happens. Usually, you know, is people will put words in my mouth or misrepresent what I'm saying.
MARTIN: No, but I am curious. If developing some kind of pathway to citizenship isn't the answer, what is the alternative?
BARLETTA: The alternative is to secure the borders first. First things first. We don't know if it's 11 million people. What would you say if it were 40 million people? We're not...
MARTIN: So, just so I'm clear. You're not willing to say one way or the other what should be done with the people who are already here illegally?
BARLETTA: The problem that we have here is that we do not have secure borders and we have an administration and administrations who have not enforced the laws we have. And the pathway to citizenship, the reason why that's not good policy, the proposals are talking about giving people this temporary legal status. So, basically, you could come tomorrow and you'll be allowed to stay.
MARTIN: Do you go home a lot? Do you get to Hazleton very often?
BARLETTA: Oh, I do. I go home every weekend.
MARTIN: Setting aside the issue of illegal immigration, the cultural change that's taken place in your community, is that something you're comfortable with? Is that something you embrace?
BARLETTA: Well, of course. That's what makes America what it is. It's a change for a community when people with different cultures, different backgrounds, different languages move in. But that's what America is about. And that's why we need to encourage people to assimilate into the melting pot that makes America the greatest country on Earth. And when we begin to get politically correct, when we begin to become a country of multiple different languages, we're taking that melting pot away. I think it's a wonderful thing that people would want to come to the greatest country on Earth and we should make sure that the very reason they come here for that we give it to them.
MARTIN: Lou Barletta is the former mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. He is now a U.S. congressman. He joined us from his office on Capitol Hill. Congressman Barletta, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
BARLETTA: Thank you. It was nice talking to you too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.